Brentano String Quartet Program Notes

Since its inception in 1992, the Brentano String Quartet has appeared throughout the world to popular and critical acclaim. While they have performed in the world’s most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, they have served as the first Resident Quartet at Princeton University since 1999. During its first European tour, the Quartet was honored with the Royal Philharmonic Award for Most Outstanding Debut. “Their concert made it clear that these players could well be the best of the latest generation,” says The Philadelphia Enquirer. “Their level of individual technique was superb, while musical dialog necessary for rich chamber music was evident from first to last.”

Below is the full text of the program notes for the Brentano String Quartet concert on April 5, 2012.  More information and tickets to the concert are available on our website.

J.S. Bach
Final Contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue

With the Art of Fugue, a veritable Bible of fugal techniques and expression, Bach produced a monumental edifice.  (The idea of fugue, for the uninitiated, is that of a musical form which deals with a number of voices all discoursing on shared thematic material, a “subject,” in much the same way debates focus on a subject.) A compilation of fugues based on a single subject (and its variations), the Art of Fugue seems to be an exhaustive study of the possibilities of the form, a composer testing his mettle, expanding his horizons.  It has long been debated whether the work is in fact a study, theoretical or conceptual, never meant to be performed.  Were it meant to be performed there is much speculation on what instrumentation was intended; is it a keyboard work, a work for a consort of like instruments, for a broken consort, a vocal group?  The piece is written in “open score” – on four staves, one per part, with no other indications.  There is much room for discussion, for scholarly musings and musicological excavation.  What is clear to us is that this is a golden treasure trove of riveting musical rhetoric, elevated, intricately woven round-table discussions which make for an engaging concert experience.  It is music for which we have a deep love and which we feel we can bring to life effectively through the medium of the string quartet.

The Art of Fugue as a whole forms a sort of treatise comprising a set of discussions related to a common theme. Imagine hosting a series of fascinating evenings devoted to discoursing on politics, or a specific political problem, dealing with one main insight on each such evening.  In much the same way as such a series of evening sessions would,  we find that this set of fugues exhibits a certain shared “aboutness,” rooted in descent from a common fugue subject.  Sometimes other, secondary subjects are brought in to comment on and shed light on the first (such as in Contrapunctus XI, which has two additional subjects), or a theme is turned upside down to be viewed from a new angle (Contrapuncti IV, VI and XI), or it is stated rather more slowly or quickly in order to lend it a different weight (Contrapunctus VII).  Parts support or challenge one another.  All these are familiar concepts to anyone who has been engaged in fruitful debate, and make for stimulating repartee.

Such a mammoth achievement from the great composer’s last days comes to us only incomplete, as the final fugue (Contrapunctus XVIII) trails off unended, thus inviting romantic speculation. There is the most likely apocryphal story of Bach dying as he dictated the final fugue, having just incorporated his own name as a musical cipher into the fabric of the piece. Of all the parts of the Art of Fugue, this final, unfinished fugue is the lengthiest, even truncated as it is, and arguably the loftiest as well. Alone in this work it does not feature the subject common to all the other fugues, although its first subject can be understood as a variation on it. Instead it features fugal writing on three different subjects that get intertwined as the piece progresses. The third of these subjects is Bach’s own name, spelled out in pitches (H being the German signifier of our B-natural) as if he were signing his own piece. Just after the integration of all three themes the piece breaks off. It has been shown, however, that these themes can all be combined with a fourth, the fourth being the principal subject of the entire Art of Fugue, thus gloriously contextualizing this much mused-on subject as the crowning achievement of the entire work. Without the final section, the main subject remains implied, its aura having been fully illuminated. It is rather like figuring out who a man is through his influence on others, or learning the story of the life of Jesus through the accounts of competing gospels. We are able to arrive at the fullest truth of the subject by encountering its reflections in other themes that fit with it. And although I would give (almost) anything to know the rest of this beautiful, haunting piece, I also believe that as it stands it makes a moving and powerful statement. It is the torso of a magnificent, powerful ancient sculpture, and we apprehend it even without direct knowledge of its entirety.
© 2007 by Mark Steinberg

Ferruccio Busoni
String Quartet No. 2

Ferruccio Busoni defies categorization as much as any figure in the music world of the late 19th century. On the one hand, he was pre-eminent among concert pianists of his time, having a profound influence on following generations; on the other, he was also influential as a composer and composition teacher, including among his many students Edgard Varèse, Percy Grainger and Kurt Weill. An ethnic Italian born in Tuscany, Busoni was ultimately a citizen of the world, living his life in Austria, Finland and the United States before settling in Berlin. And he was at once both more radical and more conservative than the musical establishment of his time: he is famous for his devotion to and study of the work of Bach, but also noted for a manifesto-like essay he wrote in 1907, where he welcomed the coming of a new avant-garde, exhorted his fellow composers to throw out the old laws, and predicted the division of the octave into more than twelve tones. Throughout his life he was a champion of contemporary music.

In the realm of chamber music, Busoni’s name is not a common sight. The Second Quartet dates from 1887, when Busoni was 21 and was studying in Leipzig. This is not the work of a torch-bearing ideologist just yet; rather we hear the work of a brilliant young creative mind mulling over several powerful currents from the musical past. The quartet’s richly polyphonic textures reflect the composer’s deep study of Bach; its driving, indomitable spirit recalls Beethoven in many places; and several more intimate details evoke the work of Schumann, who was the teacher of Karl Reinecke, Busoni’s own teacher in Leipzig. At the same time, however, Busoni grapples with the spirit of his own times. He is at ease writing in an extremely chromatic style, foreshadowing the work of younger contemporaries such as Reger and Zemlinsky. Also, like many late-Romantic composers, he unifies the work by having themes from earlier movements reappear in later ones, giving the piece a “cyclical” quality; and by explicitly modeling one movement’s tempo upon its predecessor’s, in the case of the second and third movements.

The first movement opens with three monolithic chords. What follows is a fairly substantial movement, characterized by rhythmic strength and drive, as well as intricate contrapuntal activity between the voices. The movement is an unmistakeable homage to Brahms’ First Quartet, recalling not only the meter and textures of that movement but its essentially symphonic scope; however, Busoni injects a certain bravura exuberance into his writing, in preference to Brahms’ tighter reasoning. The second movement, an Andante, opens with a simple, almost rustic exchange between the cello and the violins, setting the stage for a more transparently textured movement. This section is succeeded by a warmer, more chorale-like theme in the lower three instruments, answered in rhapsodic triplets by the first violin. After this is developed, a sudden ominous appearance of the opening melody from the first movement, like a bad memory, halts all progress for an instant; it is only gradually that the music can feel its way back to its own material and come to a conclusion. The third movement, a rapid scherzo, carries more than a hint of the language of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its d minor octaves and exciting drive. The contrasting Trio section is much more intimate, with a Schumannesque dreaminess, a lovely foil to the lightning of the main section. A slow and somber passage opens the last movement; perhaps we hear another Beethoven homage here, Busoni the student paging through the older composer’s opus 18 #6 or opus 135 quartet. The main body of the movement moves to D major, and is jovial and busy, brimming with contrapuntal games. Various barriers confront the music’s forward progress late in the movement, including the return of the slow, opening material (again, recalling Beethoven’s style), and a fierce attack from the minor theme that opened the first movement; but ultimately a dramatic accelerando overcomes these difficulties, and the movement rockets to a euphoric conclusion.
© 2011 by Misha Amory

Ludwig Van Beethoven
String Quartet in Bb-Major, Op. 130

Most of us have felt at some point caught in the gap between feeling and expression, inchoate thought and language. Anyone feeling profound love or pain has likely searched in vain for words to convey the truest essence of those states. Even describing to another just why you find something amusing can be a challenge. It is by no means clear to what extent we need language to think, or whether there can be meaning in thoughts that transcends what can be translated into a formal language. When I write about music (including right now) I often feel I know just what I want to say until the moment comes when words must be found. The moment of writing sees the certainty of the thought evaporate. Was that certainty real or illusory? Does this suggest that there are thoughts that have a shape no word can fit? The relationship between form or language and meaning is one that seems an obsession in Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Pushing at the boundaries of what music can or perhaps can’t do, Beethoven wrestles with these question in ways that at times have the nature of curious puzzles, and at other times profoundly grapple with the association between intimate experience and art. As Wittgenstein investigates the link of language and thought, as Gödel asks what truths may escape any given formal system, so Beethoven uses music to refer to and ask questions of itself, writing in Op. 130 a precarious piece that investigates and attempts to define the limit of what can be expressed.

The piece begins and certainties based on usually reliable assumptions quickly dissolve. A slow introduction leads, as expected, into a quicker main section, yet this is in turn interrupted by the introduction’s return, and by the time the main section reasserts itself the doubling of the normal juxtaposition has thrown the claim to primacy of both types of music into doubt. In fact, their playing off each other remains a central issue in the movement, and the development section manages to create an undulating continuity out of the two note figure in the introduction which connotes only punctuation and closing. The repeated note motive that first appears in the second violin at the start of the Allegro completely subverts normal musical grammar: the two pitches are in the relationship of dominant to tonic, the strongest cadential formula in Western music, and yet instead of having the dominant fall to its tonic with a sense of finality (in accordance with gravity, as it should) Beethoven chooses to lift it upwards, deprive it of its expected harmony and introduce a sudden hush. Somehow this is music about the language of music, the composer playing with form and material, performing a balancing trick in coaxing the movement toward coherence, inventing as he goes principles of some non-Euclidean geometry governing a world that might or might not be able to exist. Beethoven plays at testing the limits of musical language by refusing traditional rules and relationships. In many of the late works we come across music where we feel the logical working out of the proceedings in real time, a sense of living within the composerly mindset. This piece seems to be special in using that process to challenge or question the potency of music itself as an explanatory art form.

From the second movement through the fifth Beethoven writes a set of character pieces, in some sense in two pairs. This subverts the expected four movement set up of the string quartet, and sets forth the challenge of creating a convincing large structure out of miniatures, balancing unlike parts in preference to creating interlocking pieces. The music leans away from the sophisticated reasoning of most of his quartet writing toward the world of caricature and masks, each movement affording a differing exaggeration of character and mode of expression. And in the sense that tribal masks sometimes protect the wearer who intones sacred words and names from divine retribution, Beethoven’s masks allow him to play at games of rhetoric otherwise far from the composer’s usual relationship with larger forms. In writing music that is in many ways tongue-in-cheek he enters a sort of metamusical world, being at once composer and commentator. The quicksilver Presto investigates the extremes of contrast between its scurrying, furtive outer sections and the wild bombast of the intervening trio. In between is an odd passage in which the first violin line hovers three times above a moat of snapping crocodiles, the crocodiles taking the form of a minor second, motivically important throughout the work. The music teases with the idea of escape from motivic, rational writing, farther and farther away until it is pulled irrevocably downward back into the obsession of the opening section, decorated to become almost comically hyperbolized. The small movement teeters on the edge of rupture due to the highly stylized, almost farcical contrast of its sections. Its companion movement, provocatively marked “poco scherzoso” (“slightly joking”) explores the possibility of mating two character piece to produce a hybrid. Instead of separating out the elements as he does in the Presto, Beethoven blends together a tender, somewhat amorous Andante with a witty mechanical evocation of a clock (a popular musical trope of the period). For good measure he throws in, as well, a somewhat portentous figure, heard at the very opening, which shares the figuration of the amoroso theme, a sort of musical pun. Throughout it becomes difficult to know whether the music is heartfelt or silly; it is as if the movement is a precarious emulsion of oil and vinegar, able to stay together only for as long as it takes to hear it, a sleight-of-hand.

The succeeding pair of movements balance caricature against deep introspection. The “Alla dansa tedesca” (“in the style of a German dance”) is a kind of manic waltz, a parody of rustic, unsophisticated style. Performance directions push the simple tune to the brink of the grotesque, and there are games played with awkward, almost absurd figuration, fitting the wrong rhythmic accompaniment to the first violin filigree, and bars in which the tune starts to go backwards before correcting itself. Just before the ending of the movement there is the briefest flirtation with something more loving and inward which is cast aside almost immediately as the movement ends rather abruptly, naive and pompous. The parody tests how much it is possible for music to make fun of itself, to contain both the underlying form and the commentary on this form at once. It is as if we meet an older person for the first time and detect at once his earlier self and the magnification of his personality traits that time has wrought, at once the prototype and the distortion. The Alla dansa tedesca also serves as a powerful foil for the ensuing movement. Its key is a rude shock after the preceding moment, challenging the gods of cohesion with such a harmonic rift, but somehow its keynote then becomes harmonically a link into the inner sanctum of the work, the fifth movement. (And then into the finales, as if the piece needs to step outside of itself to find a way forward.)

In the Cavatina (originally a term for a type of operatic aria) the crisis of the piece is reached, the desolation of the inexpressible fully revealed. Our quartet had the privilege of playing this movement at the memorial service for the great astronomer Carl Sagan at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. All the music for the service was taken from the selections Carl Sagan chose for the “golden record,” included on the Voyager spacecrafts, which was meant to represent life on earth and some of the greatest achievements of mankind, sent as a communication and an offering to any intelligent civilization that might intercept it. The prelude to the Cavatina on the occasion  of the service was a recording of Sagan reading from his book Pale Blue Dot, speaking of Voyager taking a photograph of the Earth from the edge of the solar system, of the great importance the contemplation of this vantage point holds for all of us. In Pale Blue Dot, Sagan writes: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” Beethoven’s Cavatina indeed deals with the folly of human conceits, the frailty and vulnerability of our love and our tenuous ability to communicate it, indeed our deep lack of any true model of our inner states. And it touches on the richness of the human capacity for love as well as the loneliness of isolation in the chasm between feeling and expression. The singing line is shared mostly between the two violins, and although the very first part of the first theme ends with a too-quick, almost stammered half-cadence, as if the right word has escaped the singer’s lips even as the song has just started, the line manages to continue and blossoms into an infinitely tender, empathetic exchange. A particularly touching moment comes in the exchange between the violins of the second theme of the movement. Typically a melodic idea first appears in a piece in its most simple version; if it is to be ornamented this happens in later repetitions. Here an idea traded between the violins twice comes in a slightly ornamented version and is only later sung in a more elemental form, as if the second violin reaches backward in time, searching for something more true, more pure, turning eyes inward and refusing any artifice. Painfully, the first violin fails to respond in kind, offering instead the most ornamented version of all, somehow lacking the trust or courage to grasp after the essence of what must be said. The gap in expression is palpable. The incongruity of the utterances opens a space for one of the most unsettling passages in all of music, with the first violin left in desperate isolation. Beethoven marks the passage beklemmt: oppressed, anguished, stifled. Along with a viscerally disorienting shift to a distant tonality the lower voices pulsate in a sort of primal vibration. The first violin is somehow overcome, no longer singing, no longer even able to connect one note to another, voiceless yet desperate to give voice. The line cannot find tears with which to cry, it gropes for language where there is none. Within the world of Op. 130 and its investigation of the limits of musical language and form this is the moment of revelation. The movement which is to sing loses its capacity to do so, or cannot find the inspiration to support it. Exquisite paradox: Music is inadequate to express what pleads to be expressed; this failure is flawlessly expressed by music. The Cavatina has an ending, one in which the idea of a fundamental vibration-pulsation meets the initial stammer of the movement and offers uneasy consolation, but there is little stable comfort to be had here. The fissure between depth of feeling and language too feeble to hold it in its entirety is too great for that.

Where to go from here? Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this work’s engagement with problems of expression and narrative is the fact that the piece has two possible endings. At the premiere of the work it was performed with the Grosse Fuge (“Great Fugue”) as its final movement, music of at times terrifying force, teetering at the boundary between chaos and order. In this most rigorous of musical forms Beethoven creates music that threatens at any moment to collapse, even flirting with the edges of madness or incomprehensibility. Having confronted the terror of music’s failure in the beklemmt section of the Cavatina, Beethoven responds by locking himself in mortal combat with musical form and, although it only happens in the final moments, somehow achieving a sense of having been victorious.

Or is he? Bewildered by the Fugue, Beethoven’s publisher convinced him to remove it from the piece, publish it separately, and write an alternate finale (the last thing he ever wrote). From what we know of Beethoven’s personality consenting to such a change seems highly uncharacteristic. Could it be that he welcomed the chance to respond differently to the crisis of the beklemmt? The alternate finale is much closer in feeling to Op. 135 (the last of the quartets) than to any of the other late quartets (including Op. 130), representing, perhaps, Beethoven wearing a Buddha’s smile. The crisis is acknowledged, accepted, held as it is. Struggle is abandoned, equanimity allowed to blossom without denial of having stared into the abyss. Perhaps at the last moment Beethoven envisaged a different way forward.

© 2012 by Mark Steinberg

Ludwig van Beethoven
Grosse Fuge in Bb-Major, opus 133

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, is one of the great artistic testaments to the human capacity for meaning in the face of the threat of chaos.  Abiding faith in the relevance of visionary struggle in our lives powerfully informs the structure and character of the music; this is surely one of the composer’s most inspiring achievements.

The Great Fugue was originally conceived as the final movement of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130.  In that work it followed directly the Cavatina, one of the most intimate embodiments of the frailty and vulnerability of love ever made audible to human ears (a movement we had the honor of playing at Carl Sagan’s memorial service, as he included it among the works sent into space on Voyager, representing some of the greatest achievements of humanity).  This juxtaposition with the most touching lyricism makes the opening of the fugue shocking, as Beethoven takes the final G of that movement and explodes it into a stark octave passage for the whole quartet.  The writing is jagged and austere, then, following the Overtura which opens the movement, there is a brief evocation of the wispy, halting breaths of the Cavatina in eerie double notes for the first violin alone.  The fugue proper then defiantly announces itself with disjunct, painful and completely unvocal leaps, all elbows and knees.  Shouting, on the brink of whirling into chaos, the argument of the fugue is actually tightly ordered; of the dual description Beethoven gives for the movement — partly free, partly studied — this is the studied side.  It will be the task of the Grosse Fuge to make sense of this everpresent possibility of complete collapse, to bring resolve and purpose to the human condition in the midst of uncertainty.

During the private premiere of the original version of Op. 130, given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, Beethoven absented himself, choosing to drink in a local pub instead.  It fell to the second violinist of that group, Holz, to go to the pub to report to the composer.  He declared the occasion a big success, and recounted how those present asked to have two of the inner movements repeated.  Beethoven immediately asked about the fugue, and when he was told that there was no request for a repeat of that he remarked that the audience had been made up of  “cattle and asses”.  The audience as well as the players had in fact had great difficulties with the movement, finding it nearly incomprehensible.  It was suggested to the composer that he replace the last movement of the quartet with one which would be more accessible.  Certainly Beethoven himself never doubted that the fugue was a masterpiece of great potency.  One of the great mysteries of musical history is what could have convinced Beethoven, a quintessentially headstrong man, to agree to remove the fugue from Op. 130 and publish it separately (as Op. 133), writing an alternate finale for the quartet.  Today quartets often play Op. 130 in its original incarnation, ending with the Grosse Fuge.  We have played that piece in both versions, finding the original version the more satisfying of the two, monumental in its scope.

As confrontational and even brutal as the Grosse Fuge seems to us today, it is hard to imagine the effect it must have had at that time.  Stravinsky was fond of saying of this piece that it will forever be contemporary. This is perhaps only partly true.  The unforgiving, jagged texture of much of the piece certainly brings it close to sounds not heard again for a century hence, and the piece has a raw energy which will never be blunted.  Its surface texture in parts could easily be taken out of context as representative of music of our own time.  Still, we live now in the age of quantum mechanics, which takes the physical world out of the realm of the completely measurable, and of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which tells us that no logical system will ever be powerful enough to prove all statements we know to be true. Our faith in the invincibility of human reason and perception for explaining our world has been severely shaken.  Much of the art of our era has been devoted to feelings of pessimism and despair.  This is not Beethoven’s world.  He shares our recognition of the vulnerable fragility of man, the inadequacy of the mind to fully ponder all the enigmas of our world.  And yet, his view is one which encompasses hope, and the possibility of triumph, a victorious human spirit.  The turn to clarity and optimism happens late in the piece, and quickly, but it is unmistakable, regretless, and moving beyond words.

Early in our quartet’s relationship with this piece I happened to be reading Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire and came across a paragraph which I thought captured something of the essential nature of the Grosse Fuge.  I would like to share that passage with you:

Far back in the impulse to find a story is a storyteller’s belief that at times life takes on the shape of art and that the remembered remnants of these moments are largely what we come to mean by life.  The short semi-humorous comedies we live, our long certain tragedies, and our springtime lyrics and limericks make up most of what we are.  They become almost all of what we remember of ourselves.  Although it would be too fancy to take these moments of our lives that seemingly have shape and design as proof we are inhabited by an impulse to art, yet deep within us is a counterimpulse to the id or whatever name is presently attached to the disorderly, the violent, the catastrophic both in and outside us.  As a feeling, this counterimpulse to the id is a kind of craving for sanity, for things belonging to each other, and results in a comfortable feeling when the universe is seen to take a garment from the rack that seems to fit.  Of course, both impulses need to be present to explain our lives and our art, and probably go a long way to explain why tragedy, inflamed with the disorderly, is generally regarded as the most composed art form.
© by Mark Steinberg

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